Jewish Journal

The sacred identity of ‘mistress’

by Brad A. Greenberg

December 21, 2009 | 3:21 pm

A generally love the unorthodox approach Slate takes to many story. And the premise on this article about Tiger Woods’ lady friends is another good angle. But the way it’s written comes off as a defense of the sanctity of being a mistress:

The Tiger Woods “mistress” count is up to 11, the Boston Herald reported on Wednesday. If the golfer wanted to have “mistresses” at every port, he shouldn’t have bothered getting married, a contributor at Examiner.com opined recently. And as “alleged mistresses … come out of the woodwork,” the Seattle Post-Intelligencer noted Tuesday, once-devoted sponsors are growing wary. It’s shocking, really: The more the press covers the Tiger Woods scandal, the more abuse they heap on the word mistress. We don’t know much for certain about Tiger Woods’ extramarital relations. But the term mistress generally connotes a level of commitment to one’s side dish(es) that does not seem to be present here. A woman who has sex with a man once—or even repeatedly— but without any real devotion is not really his mistress.

The word mistress entered English in the 14th century by way of French. Effectively equivalent to master with the ess feminine suffix, it originally meant “a woman having control or authority”—such as a woman who is the head of a household. By the 15th century, the word developed the meaning “a woman who is loved by a man; a female sweetheart,” but the specific sense “a woman other than his wife with whom a man has a long-lasting sexual relationship,” to quote the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition, doesn’t appear until the early 17th century. (John Donne made this meaning particularly clear in a sermon mentioning “women, whom the Kings were to take for their Wives, and not for Mistresses, (which is but a later name for Concubines).”)

This bare dictionary definition, even with the emphasis on “long-lasting,” doesn’t fully capture the nuances of mistress’s use. A mistress is exclusively devoted to one man. Although that man may have other partners, his relationship with his mistress is relatively serious and stable. He may even pay to support her, or at least help cover some of her living expenses.

One of those co-adulterers, the one who started Woods’ downward spiral, was Rachel Uchitel, who, as Danielle Berrin writes, is Jewish.

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